by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Saudi Arabia has launched a major air campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen. During the opening hours, Riyadh’s warplanes bombed some of the largest rebel-held air bases in the country.
These bases — and the fighter jets and helicopters parked at them — had been one of the Yemeni government’s only material advantages. For years, Yemen depended on its largely obsolete air force to carry out strikes against rebels in areas where its ground army couldn’t go.
The Houthis are a Zaidi Shia rebel group who have fought an off-and-on conflict with the Yemeni government since 2004. In 2014, the Houthis staged a massive rebellion and seized the Arabian nation’s capital of Sana’a.
The rebels have since taken several air bases.
Now it appears that much of Yemen’s air combat power is either destroyed or in rebel hands. Adel Al Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, suggested the collapse of the Yemeni air force helped trigger the intervention.
“We have a situation where you have a militia group that is now in control or can be in control of ballistic missiles, heavy weapons and an air force,” Al Jubeir said.
During the opening hours of the Saudi offensive on March 26, warplanes from the kingdom bombed Sana’a International Airport and Al Anad air base. Sana’a airport includes a military base.
Houthi rebels captured both bases in recent months — and Al Anad in Southern Yemen merely days ago. The U.S. had just evacuated around 100 U.S. troops and Special Forces from the facility, which has served as a base for Washington’s largely-clandestine war against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The rebels seized Taiz Ganed Airfield — in the city of Taiz — and Aden International Airport. Pro-government troops retook the latter. But this means that rebels are either in control or are directly threatening most of Yemen’s air bases.
The Saudi-led strikes are likely prioritizing anti-aircraft weapons, radars and aircraft on the ground. Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Sudan have joined the coalition.
It’s not clear if the Houthis can mount much of a defense with their captured fighters. But the militants have used them in a ground-attack role before.
“Shortly after [Yemeni Pres. Rabbo Mansour] Hadi fled his palace in Aden, warplanes targeted presidential forces guarding it,” Reuters reported. “No casualties were reported.”
But even before the Houthis overran half of the country, the Yemeni air force was in bad shape. The bulk of its combat power resided in a mix of more than 100 ex-Soviet fighters and helicopters. The air force had a smaller number of U.S.-made F-5 fighter jets and Huey helicopters.
It’s difficult to estimate the air force’s actual strength — and that’s before Saudi Arabia started bombing what was left of it.
Out of Yemen’s more than 50 Cold War-vintage MiG-21 fighters, few were likely serviceable. Satellite imagery of Al Anad air base in South Yemen from 2015 shows MiG-21 fighters jets lying at odd angles or in fragments — some missing their tails.
Yemen’s American-built F-5s are so old, their ejection seats don’t work, according to a 2012 report in Aviation Week. “Counterfeit parts have also made their way into the supply chain because, pilots and mechanics allege, the air force commander [used] family-owned companies to buy parts off the black market at cut-rate prices,” the magazine reported.
At the time, the air force was in mutiny over catastrophic mismanagement by air force chief Mohammed Saleh Al Ahmar, ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s half-brother. The rebellious military officers alleged Al Ahmar used the air force as a personal piggy bank, and that commanders ordered pilots to train in planes far too dangerous to fly.
Al Ahmar resigned several months later.
During years of fighting with Houthi rebels and an Al Qaeda insurgency, the government relied mainly on its 20 or so MiG-29 fighters and small fleet of Mi-8 helicopters, according to a 2010 report from the RAND Corporation.
The air force hardly used them well.
For one, the Yemeni warplanes didn’t have precision-guided weaponry. They couldn’t fly at night. The Yemeni military also didn’t deploy tactical air controllers to guide pilots toward their targets.
A general principle about air power is that it’s best as part of a combined arms strategy. Really, this applies to any military force. Air, ground and sea power work together, in some combination — depending on the situation. A single plane with a bomb can be individually destructive, but can’t fundamentally change the direction of a war.
The Yemeni government never seemed to learn that lesson.
“Broadly, offensive air operations are not coordinated with ground movements, nor do they appear to consist of more than single aircraft servicing individual static targets and then returning to base,” the RAND report stated.
Worse, this can be immoral — as badly-planned Yemeni air force strikes killed civilians. That simply created more opposition. “Lacking precision fires and pursuing standoff offensive operations, therefore, the [Yemeni government] has caused casualties among both Huthi sympathizers and others unrelated to the conflict,” the report added.
Now those planes are sitting on Houthi-controlled runways, with Saudi bombs falling from the sky.